Kurds seek leverage over oil, territories

Suleimanieh–Since the electoral campaigns officially began on 12 February, cities across Iraq’s northern Kurdistan Region have been plastered with posters and lampposts strewn with banners and bunting. Late at night, the streets of Suleimanieh have been ablaze with political fervor as cars line up bumper to bumper–honking or blasting political hymns–with passengers waving flags in support of one party or another.

For most ethnic Kurds in Iraq’s northern region, known as “Iraqi Kurdistan,” today’s (7 March) national elections are less about taking part in Iraq’s much-touted democratic process than they are about safeguarding their own interests and political gains, hard won since the 2003 US-led invasion ousted the Saddam Hussein regime.

“For Kurds, our members of parliament in Baghdad are more like ambassadors to a foreign country, who work to safeguard our rights and our interests,” said Galawizh Ghulam, a freelance journalist in Suleimanieh and a supporter of the Kurdistan Alliance, a union of the two main Iraqi Kurdish parties, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP). 

Since the 1991 Kurdish uprising that saw the formation of a semi-autonomous region in the north of Iraq above the 36th parallel–also known as a "no-fly zone"–an entire generation of Iraqi Kurds have come of age, neither speaking Arabic nor feeling any sense of belonging to the wider Republic of Iraq. While aspirations for statehood are now largely considered unrealistic–and as Kurdish officials insist they are not pursuing full-fledged independence–upcoming elections will determine how much clout the Kurdish contingent will wield in Baghdad over a number of pending issues, including disputed territories, a hydrocarbons law and federalism.

Equally important is the fate of Article 140 of the Iraqi Constitution, which aims to reverse the policy of "Arabization" employed by the Saddam Hussein government–a policy that culminated in the tragic Anfal campaign in which over 100,000 Iraqi Kurds were killed.
In fact, the implementation of Article 140–touted as a "roadmap" for resolving the issue of disputed territories, notably Kirkuk–has repeatedly been delayed by the interference of external forces and certain elements in Baghdad. While Turkey and most Arab countries view the inclusion of Kirkuk in the Kurdish region as a precursor to independence, Kurdish leaders have repeatedly stressed that they are not looking to break away. The growing political and economic relationship between Turkey and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) has begun to allay these fears somewhat.

“We don’t have reasons for separation in mind. Our survival depends on the degree of our togetherness. We in the Kurdistan region are committed to the constitution, along with retaining our particularities as a federal entity,” said Shorish Ismaeel, head of the PUK’s election bureau.
Likewise, the hydrocarbon law has run into snags, namely over who has the right to sign oil and gas contracts and over what percentage of profits the government should receive. There is even a dispute over how oil revenues should be distributed. The constitution in its current form is ambiguous on this point, stating that undeveloped fields are the responsibility of the respective region in which they are situated, which the KRG has used to justify signing various contracts. Some headway has been made in recent weeks, however, with KRG Prime Minister Barham Salih brokering a temporary truce between Baghdad and Erbil, allowing oil to flow from Kurdish oil fields through a pipeline to Turkey.

Further complicating matters for the Kurdish constituency is the emergence of a bona fide Iraqi Kurdish opposition group–the Gorran, or "Change" Party–which banked on popular discontent with poor public services and allegations of endemic corruption to garner 23.75 percent of the votes in last summer’s provincial elections. Even those who claimed they voted for one of the two main Iraqi Kurdish parties confessed at the time that they had admired the refreshing quality of the new party’s campaign.
Gorran, which portrays itself as a "movement for change," is not yet an official party. Its platform for the 2009 election was to de-politicize the regional government, strengthen the judiciary, limit political interference in the local economy and make the budget more transparent.
The emergence of Gorran, which is essentially a PUK splinter group, served to introduce two fundamental changes into the Iraqi Kurdish political arena. First, it put the two leading parties on their toes, compelling them to improve the services they provide to the public. For instance, the Kurdistan Parliament recently voted to decrease salaries of ministers and increase monthly stipends for the families of martyrs. Second, the rise of a genuine opposition party has signaled to the Western world that the Kurdish region is on the right track toward something akin to democracy.

While internally this palpable spirit of openness and democracy has been welcomed across the board in Iraq’s Kurdish region, Gorran’s decision to go it alone in the national elections–rather than join the Kurdistan Alliance–has met with harsh criticism. There are concerns among the Iraqi Kurdish rank and file, from all factions, that competing in the national elections in fragments will serve to weaken their heretofore powerful position in Baghdad.

Soz Abdulqadir Abdulrahman Baban, a candidate for Gorran in the Suleimanieh Governorate, says that fielding multiple Kurdish lists in Baghdad will actually strengthen the Kurdish position, since it is reflection of the will of the Kurdish people.

During the last four years, senior Kurdish officials have held positions of previously unimagined power in Baghdad. It may be argued that they took advantage of reigning Arab disunity there to maximize the federal nature of Iraq, enshrining both the notion of federalism and Kurdish rights in the constitution. Yet, with significant Sunni participation in these elections, Kurdish leaders may no longer be the kingmakers. If the Kurds fail to present a united front in Baghdad, then a putative Sunni-Shi’a alliance could emerge that might potentially diminish the power of the KRG–and federalism–in Iraq.

“Before I joined the Kurdistan Alliance, I went to [Gorran candidate] Nawshirwan [Mistefa] and asked him not to [go on his own] and do something that would harm the Kurdish political case in Baghdad,” said Mullah Majeed Ismail Al Hafeed, a leading cleric in Iraqi Kurdistan, who ranks seventh among candidates of the Kurdistan Alliance. “I told him that this would weaken us. I told him that whatever you want to do, do it here [in the Kurdish region], but don’t [take our differences outside]. I was afraid.”

His request having gone unheeded, Al Hafeed said he would strive to ensure that all Kurdish lists stood united on key issues.

Ismaeel, for his part, acknowledges the intricacies of politics in Baghdad, but stresses the need to “serve the nation."

“In a democracy, one has the right to [hold different opinions than] the mainstream, and this must be respected. If you wish to be on your own, you’re free, but you must remember that you’re serving a nation, and this nation has some common issues you must respect and work for,” he said. “We as the Kurdish coalition are open to new members, but still respect all who don’t follow our approach.”

In a bid to allay the concerns of the Kurdish populace, all the Kurdish lists have promised to vote as a single bloc on issues of particular importance to Kurds.

“In my view, the Kurds will unify in Baghdad and cooperate on the vital issues affecting our nation,” says Ismaeel.
However, the inability of the Kurds to unite against perceived external threats has always represented their Achilles heel. Indeed, internal divisions could very well end up costing Kurds critical positions of power in Baghdad, the most symbolic of these being the presidency. Recent press reports have indicated that Gorran has begun hinting that it may not back Iraqi President Jalal Talabani’s reelection.

According to Shkow Sharif, an Iraqi Kurdish political observer, the impact of the Gorran list appears to be limited to PUK-controlled areas. He points out that, in effect, Gorran will be taking over PUK seats in Baghdad rather than KDP ones, thus eating into the 50:50 agreements established earlier between the KDP and PUK.

“It’s also difficult to say whether Jalal Talabani will serve a second term as Iraqi president, as this will most likely come down to KDP discretion. Is it better to keep Talabani–an internationally respected figure–in the presidency, or should [KRG President and KDP leader] Massoud Barzani use his position to quell internal opposition by giving reformist Nechirvan Barzani the presidency?”

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